Brawl in Cell Block 99 isn't for everyone—especially for folks who get a bit squeamish at the sight of blood and bone—but those of you looking for a pulpy throwback in which an honorable tough guy risks everything to protect his family from harm will find much to love in S. Craig Zahler's tightly plotted action thriller.
Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is on the wagon but out of work after being laid off from his job at an auto shop. His wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), has been cheating on him following her miscarriage and his long nights at work. But they still love each other and want to work it out; in order to improve the situation, Bradley (not Brad; never Brad) takes a gig from Gil (Marc Blucas) delivering drugs.
After a deal with a group of Mexicans goes bad, Bradley is sentenced to seven years in prison—hard time that gets harder once Bradley's now-pregnant wife is kidnapped and threatened with an abortion if he does not murder a prisoner held in a maximum security section of an entirely different prison. To get there, he's going to have to hurt a lot of people. And we're going to see every second of it.
We see compound fractures and crushed skulls and bullet holes and, in one oddly amusing case, a car being dismantled by hand, blood flowing from the cuts and scrapes incurred in the process. As best as I could tell, the effects were largely, though certainly not exclusively, practical; one may occasionally be reminded of a 1970s or 1980s zombie film put together with the aid of special effects maestro Tom Savini.
Director/writer S. Craig Zahler's commitment to cruelty never slows the action. We move from moment to moment with a kind of slick grace and quick pace that keeps us from flinching too long at any individual act of brutality. Zahler, who also directed 2015's Bone Tomahawk—a similarly grisly genre exercise about a sheriff in the old West who has to save some people from a band of cannibals—captures the gore and violence with a sort of clinical detachment. Frequently filmed in a sort of washed-out, oversaturated hue, the fights are crisply shot and well choreographed and the camera tends not to linger on the damage done. A bone snaps and we move on to the next bit of horror.
That sense of detachment derives in part from Vaughn's portrayal of Bradley. He doesn't take any joy or pleasure in the violence he's forced to inflict, but he feels no sense of shame or disgrace, either. At most, there's a hint of embarrassment, or perhaps boredom, the sort of look you might expect to see on the face of a desk jockey faced with a stack of TPS reports. He's just doing what needs to be done in the time allotted, no more, no less.
Vaughn is a surprisingly perfect fit for the role, despite the fact that he's not really an action star and is saddled, for some reason, with a southern accent that fades in and out—stronger when he's delivering a one-liner ("Dem muscles just for show?" a guard asks. "Helps me lift stuuuff," Vaughn drawls back in reply.), weaker when he's just chatting. His natural height and heft render him far more believable as an unstoppable killing machine who doesn't feel much in the way of pain.
Indeed, Brawl in Cell Block 99‘s biggest strength may be the cast Zahler has assembled. Entertaining bit performances from Fred Melamed, Udo Kier, and Don Johnson, among others, help spice up the action and ensure that the film's connective tissue holds together. Melamed, for instance, plays a put upon guard running inmate intake; his prissy demeanor contrasts perfectly with Vaughn's desire to simply do his time and get by. In a relatively quick sequence we see just how much power the guards have and just how petty they can be about wielding it, helping us understand just how daunting life will soon become for Bradley.
Again: This movie isn't for the squeamish. But if you're in the mood for an amusingly reactionary (seriously, how many other films feature abortionists as villains and flag-loving fathers-to-be as heroes?) throwback to the grindhouse, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a solid way to spend two hours of your time.